Vanity Fair is, when it’s not inspiring magazine titles, a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published serially between 1847 and 1848. It was memorably subtitled “a novel without a hero” due to its protagonist, Becky Sharp, spending its entire duration trying to better her position in life with little care for the repercussions on supposed friends, (richer) husbands or even her own child.
Because of this, the story isn’t “just” a period costume drama, and any adaptation has to contend with a cynical protagonist doing unlikeable things while still keeping the audience engaged, and possibly even rooting for her. This aspect, which was previously managed so masterfully by a British TV adaptation, was something the twenty-year-old Reese Witherspoon vehicle film (which cast the TV Becky in a minor role) was evidently very uncomfortable with, not to mention often unsuccessful at.
This stage production tackled the problem with a goofy and cartoonish sensibility, which wasn’t a bad idea and, courtesy of some well-timed performances (especially Martin Dick’s Jos Sedley) does work quite well in places, albeit at the cost of the more James Austen-style wit or Games of Thrones-type machinations of the original. The set (built by Derek Blackwood, Don Arnott and Rik Kay) is also well used, adapting a series of differently sized boxes into carriages, pianos, tables, and setting the scene through projected titles and images, by Marion Donohoe and Sammi Watson.
What really makes the show considerably less light on its feet however is, unfortunately, the script by Declan Donnellan, which does not seem to have been written for this production but to have come to it from Concord Theatricals, having first been performed at Edinburgh’s own Bedlam Theatre in 1983. One of the biggest pitfalls of adaptation (and I say this as someone who has themself bloodied their nose doing it) is over-reverence to the text, and this script definitely feels guilty of that. It feels like the original +100,000 word book has been shortened to the 15,000ish words necessary to fit into two reasonably sized acts, with the director and cast then having to divide the narrator’s lines between them and add in a bit of slapstick and movement to liven up the literature.
This leads to characters describing things they are doing in the third person while they are doing it, information being given to us multiple times by different characters, and the more descriptive passages being cut up by just breaking up each sentence or passage between all the characters on stage. It’s a shame as the production, directed by Hillary Spiers, has evidently done what it can to make this an engaging show, and at times it is, but they might have found it easier with a few more strategic cuts, or a script which allowed them to show more and tell less.
Overall, it’s a decent sparks notes version of the classic book with some good choices and lively performances, but a not all together successful show in its own right.
Reviewed: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 16 November 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★